Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Old Aunts

Me and the aunts.
I grew up in a household packed to the rafters with old aunts.

You could find one in nearly every room wearing sensible shoes and smelling like the back of a closet.

They colored their hair so the boss at "the shop” on the Lower East Side wouldn’t install a newer model of themselves at one of the old Singer sewing machines and wore opaque support hose so their legs didn’t get too tired riding home on the subway after a long day.

Old aunts like that are a vanishing breed.

When I was a little girl, despite encroaching infirmity, the pre-occupation of dreams unfulfilled and the bone-deep fatigue  of working well past middle age, these good women took true delight in entertaining me, the only child on premises.

I lived upstairs.

There were no doors sealing off the three apartments in the drafty old house that was my sanctuary.  I had free reign in this paradise and walked in and out of everyone’s space like an imperious princess.  Despite its faded lime and brownstone fa├žade, clanging radiators and the dreaded  “shaft” that connected all three bathrooms so you could hear another elderly relative snoring in the tub, there will never be a house that held me more securely. Nor will there be anyone on this earth who will spoon out the maraschino cherries from their canned fruit cocktail just for me, play endless games of cards and act shocked when they find me during hide and seek.

These old aunts of mine lived downstairs. Spinsters, there were murmurs about the elder having had a doomed love affair with a married doctor. She was tough and snappy while her sister was gentle and meek. 

There was family lore about parties and even dancing to a player piano. Watching these women in their older and older still years made tales of this gaiety almost impossible to imagine but I created flickering images of the old days in my child’s imagination. I still do. There exist sepia photos of them dressed as flappers with fringes and long strings of beads that contradicted their endgame pastime of quietly chatting by the bay window, heads together, seated in matching arm chairs.

There was another old aunt, cared for by the others, who was the softest of them all. Sweet and losing her mind in a most polite way, she -- despite her sisters vigilance -- was occasionally spotted pleasantly chatting with the UPS man wearing her girdle over her dress or making pancakes for the queen.
Sisters. My grandma is second from the right.
There was one more who’d died too young of something that was discussed only in whispers. I never met her but, as the family winnowed down into one remaining female, I found myself wearing her thin platinum wedding band with my own and being encouraged by its presence to think of her almost every day.

The aunts missed that little girl when I stopped being her.

As soon as the arrival of hormones intruded on this nirvana, things changed, including my interest in playing dolls with the aunts. I became little more than a careless wave, ending my tenure as a playmate and partner for Cat’s Cradle--once endlessly enthralled by the string’s magical transformations, I had bigger fish to fry.

The youngest female in the lineage often ends up with the tangible reminder of these women by inheriting, among other artifacts, the wedding rings. I now have them all. A few are too small for my chubby fingers and I have plans to have them sized to fit. When I’m older, I’ll be that old lady in the supermarket with a stack of rings twisting on gnarled fingers as she pays the impatient but polite cashier in coins.

So that’s it, I guess, Few but me now remember the old aunts but they are with all the excellent women who now stand in a line behind me with a hand on my shoulder. Thanks, girls. I miss you.